Malawi government defends gay couple’s prosecution

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BLANTYRE, MALAWI (AP) — Malawi’s government said Monday that it is unmoved by international criticism of the trial of a gay couple charged with unnatural acts and gross indecency, felonies for which they could be imprisoned for up to 14 years.

In a statement Monday, Malawi’s Information Minister Leckford Mwanza Thoto made no apology for the laws that criminalize homosexual acts. He said Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga were “clearly breaking the laws of Malawi.”

“As government we cannot interfere in the court process,” Thoto said. “We depend on our Western friends, yes, but we are a sovereign country.”

Forty percent of Malawi’s budget is funded by international donors.

Monjeza, 26, and Chimbalanga, 20, have been jailed since their arrest Dec. 27, the day they celebrated their engagement with a party that drew crowds of curious onlookers in this conservative southern African country. Hearings in the trial also have attracted crowds.

A verdict is expected next month.

Amnesty International has called for the couple’s immediate release. More than 20 members of the Scottish parliament have condemned the arrest, calling on their government to review its development aid package for Malawi. OutRage! — a gay rights group — has called on Britain to intercede on behalf of the gay couple.

Mauya Msuku, the couple’s lawyer, said the laws under which Monjeza and Chimbalanga were charged were archaic and unconstitutional.

“The penal code criminalizes homosexuality or same-sex marriages but under the Bill of Rights in the new Constitution it is clearly stated that no one should be discriminated against on the basis of — among other things — sexual orientation,” he said.

Msuku has asked Chief Justice Lovemore Munlo for a constitutional review. Munlo has yet to set the date for a Constitutional Court hearing.

Recently, a group of Malawi human rights activists formed the Center for the Development of People to fight for the rights of homosexuals and other minorities.

In Africa, only South Africa has legalized same-sex marriage, and in South Africa the gap between the liberal constitution and societal attitudes can be wide. Uganda will soon debate a proposed law that would impose the death penalty on some gays, though Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has told colleagues he believes the bill is too harsh and a Cabinet minister has called — so far unsuccessfully — for the bill to be scrapped.